Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Angels Among Us
Christmas Eve, a Christmas Eve sermon from Luke 2
Preached December 24, 2020 for the 8:00pm Worship
For Advent, we have been reading and preaching from Luke 1, waiting and preparing for this moment! Tonight, we get to turn the page as we read and preach from Luke 2. Let’s pray, then listen for the word of the Lord…
Scripture Luke 2:8-20
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,[a] the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,[b] praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”[c]
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and they found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
Sermon Angels Among Us
When angels step up and dare to speak, directly to us, we are right to be amazed, at least, and even terrified. They come not bringing just their beauty, not just their words. In fact, we don’t recognize them as angels at all, if all we see is their presence, and all we hear are their words. No, its when the glory of the Lord shines through them that we finally understand we are in the presence of angels, and we finally feel our breath pulled from our lungs, bend our backs into a humble bow, and bend our knees into a posture of prayer because the Glory of the LORD through the angel before us is so surprising and awesome, so humbling and frightening.
It’s Boo Radley, the odd next-door neighbor in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The children avoid him and tell spooky stories about him. He looks funny. He’s different. He’s big. He’s not too smart. But on the way home from the school play that one night, through the dark woods, Boo rescues Scout and her brother from their attacker, and brings them safely home. Boo, the angel, appeared that night, and it shocked and surprised and humbled everyone.
It’s the stranger who just happens to be there the moment you need her most. You might not have ever met the person before, but she’s right there beside you at a time of great need. And she appears, and she speaks, and her presence alarms you, and comforts you at the same time. The timing of it all makes you shudder and wonder if this is someone taking advantage of you in a moment of weakness, or is it a God moment. The stranger is an angel for you, and that’s why you feel surprised, humbled, and unsure.
Angels sneak up on us, scare us and surprise us, and say strange things like, “Do not be afraid.” It doesn’t help much. Of course, we are going to be afraid. They appear out of nowhere, typically at an awkward time, and catch us off guard or vulnerable, and we will be afraid.
The angle might respond, “I’m not here to frighten you. “See—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
Honestly, great news for everybody sounds more like an advertisement for a big Christmas sale, or another hollow political promise like lower taxes and more government benefits. When times are tough, I’m not all that interested in some one-size-fits-all kind of help. I want something personal, tailored to fit me and my needs and my problems. It needs to be something I can trust and that will give me clear results.
Well, the good news is that “to you, is born this day, in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
To me? A savior, the savior, is born today, for me? By the time he is old enough to do anything about this messed up world, I’ll be long gone. What’s the point? I just wish one time I could get an Angel that speaks in plain English, and doesn’t talk in riddles, and shows me what I want to see, and tells me what I want to hear, without all the weird prophetic, big-word stuff.
Okay, no riddles, no hidden messages, no more big-words. You can go meet your savior. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
I thought you said the Messiah, the King of Kings, was born. What is he doing being born in a cave, in a feeding trough? How will he ever climb from that kind of nothingness to anything that actually matters in this world? I can’t imagine the beautiful holy blessing of God Almighty resting on some poor dark-skinned kid conceived out of wedlock to a gal from the wrong side of the tracks and born in a lean-to shack out back of a dingy motel.
Then don’t imagine God’s holiness. Behold it! “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom the child favors!”
The sights and sounds of that moment of angelic presence reach beyond doubt. The glory of God is too big to deny, yet too big for words. Eyes and ears absorb all they can in those brief moments of revealed glory, and struggle to take mental snapshots so this feeling of doubtless belief and wonder and joy and hope and love will last.
But then… poof… they are gone. The heavenly hosts? Gone. The angel who spoke so wisely, so calmly? Gone. The shepherds are alone again, in the fields with no one but each other and their sheep. Is that the echoes of glorious singing that I can still hear, bouncing off the mountains and buildings and returning to me as a reassurance that I’m not losing my mind, or was it all just a dream? The glow of the glory of God is replaced by the black night sky with only the dim, pin-hole lights of stars shining down. After such a ruckus, all is ridiculously quiet. Crickets chirp. Its so anti-climactic, the proverbial calm after? the storm.
It’s like the end of a fireworks show when the last of the grand finale rockets has boomed. All that remains is the smoke. The music stops. The lights come on in the park. Everyone that had gathered to watch in wonder, that had ooo-ed and aww-ed at the fireworks overhead just moments ago, everyone is no longer looking up, but looking down and gathering their things back into coolers and packs for the trudging walk back to the van, and the fight to get their car out of the parking lot faster.
It’s like Christmas morning. The kids hit the tree and rip open the last presents. The big meal is served and the same ol’ stories are retold with slight variations from the year before to increase their impact and humor. And then, it sinks in that it’s all over. Family stops celebrating and starts leaving. Wrapping paper is not torn with amazement at what hides behind but wadded into balls for trash or recycling or the fire. Dishes are not mounded with delicious treats but scraped and loaded into the dishwasher. And the first tears from the first broken toy echo up the stairs and remind us all life is back to normal.
It’s so anti-climactic for the Glory of God to appear, then leave. Why did the Angels even have to come in the first place? It might have been better had we never seen how amazing it could be. Did they even come at all? What are we supposed to do now, now that the glory of the Lord which shone so brightly just a few minutes ago, is gone, now that the heavenly hosts have closed their hymnbooks, now that the fireworks are over, and the presents unwrapped, and the dishwasher is running? What will the shepherds do? They look around, wondering if they really saw, felt, what they think they saw, and felt, and feel? A sheep wiggles and baas in the distance, shaking off some of the cold from the settling dew. The campfire crackles and awaits the next move of its stokers.
Then, one of them slowly cracks a smile where the look of awe and wonder and confusion and doubt had been just a few moments ago. His eyes light up and twinkle with the light of the stars themselves. And he says to the others, who are now watching him, “Well, shall we?”
He doesn’t realize it, but now, he’s an Angel. His invitation to fellow shepherds to believe, to trust, to get up, and go see for yourselves, that’s an angelic invitation to Good News. The other shepherds follow him. They go to Bethlehem and find things just as the other angel promised.
I wonder how they spent the rest of that night? I wonder if they spent the rest of their lives treasuring the glory of God, the good news of God among them in a Child who is Christ the Lord. I wonder how it changed them, to be more hopeful, trusting, joyful. I wonder if they shared that light-heartedness with others? I wonder how many times they became angels for someone else?
This year, the glory of the Lord is a bit less evident. We can’t really hear the angelic voices of our choir or the Chorale sing like heavenly hosts. We can’t really gather big groups together for big meals, and laugh and tell stories. But maybe, just maybe, we can be those shepherds, who only had a memory of it, and still let a faint smile sneak across their faces, and moved forward with hope.
To God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown